Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Imperspicuous objections to perspicuity

Catholic epologists like to assail the perspicuity of Scripture. There are, however, some basic problems with their stereotypical objections. I’ll concentrate on three:

1.When we affirm (or deny) that a text (or speech) is clear, does this have reference to objective clarity or subjective clarity?

i) Take traffic signs. Traffic signs are meant to be objectively clear. Each different traffic sign has a different meaning. And each one has a single meaning. It’s meaning is designed to be unambiguous. Only intended to mean one thing. A traffic sign isn’t subject to interpretation.

ii) This, however, doesn’t mean that traffic signs are subjectively clear. Indeed, unless you know the symbology, their significance is fairly opaque.

But their subjective ambiguity (indeed, opacity) doesn’t count against their objective clarity.

So when a Catholic epologist tries to disprove the perspicuity of Scripture by pointing to “33,000” denominations, that wouldn’t undermine the objective clarity of Scripture, for even if we accept that bogus figure, subjective clarity, or the lack thereof, isn’t synonymous with objective clarity.

You might as well invoke the number of traffic citations that drivers receive every year to prove the ambiguity of traffic signs. The meaning of the signage can be univocal even though multitudes of drivers disregard it.

2.On the one hand, Catholic epologists assure us that Scripture is not perspicuous. And they cite whatever evidence they think proves their point.

On the other hand, we can find the very same Catholic epologists attempting to prooftext Catholic theology from the Bible. They quote the Bible to prove Catholic faith and morals. They also quote the Bible to disprove Protestant faith and morals.

Oftentimes, they don’t even bother to interpret their prooftexts. They’ll simply quote a catena of verses, as if their meaning were self-explanatory.

And if a Protestant takes issue with their prooftext, they will accuse him of playing fast-and-loose with the plain sense of the text. It’s only because the Protestant comes to the Bible with his Protestant theological commitments or hermeneutical method that he refuses to acknowledge what the Catholic prooftext “plainly” teaches.

So the Catholic objection to Biblical perspicuity boils down to this:

Scripture is perspicuous whenever it happens to prove Catholic faith and morals, or disprove Protestant faith and morals.

Scripture is never perspicuous when it happens to prove Protestant faith and morals, or disprove Catholic faith and morals.

3.The Catholic objection to the sufficiency of Scripture is often at odds with the Catholic objection to the perspicuity of Scripture.

On the one hand, a Catholic epologist will say the Bible can’t be perspicuous since the vast majority of Christians didn’t find what the Protestant Reformers discovered in Scripture.

On the other hand, a Catholic epologist will say the Bible can’t be sufficient since the vast majority of Christian up until modern times were Biblically illiterate.

All-in-all, I’m struck by the absence of perspicuity in Catholic objections to perspicuity.


  1. Steve, I think you are giving them too much credit. Their real instinct is just to simply say, with some bombast, the next available thing that seems to contradict what the Protestant has been saying. In this way, over time, they'll say every available thing that can be said. It's a bullet-proof defense.

  2. "And if a Protestant takes issue with their prooftext, they will accuse him of playing fast-and-loose with the plain sense of the text."

    That's the hot read in the "C"atholic playbook. Make an objection and, if the Protestant responds to the argument on its own terms, shift or accuse the Protestant of a straw man. Or, Protestant cites Scripture, and the Protestant gets hammered for reading into the context something not necessarily there. Or, the Protestant cites an ECF in support of a contention against "unanimous consent" and hears the cry of a thousand "C"atholic tears for so meanly interpolating a foreign concept into the context.

    They're all the same objection. Apparently, "C"atholics think Protestants are illiterate.

  3. With respect to #2, Whitaker (1547-1595), centuries ago, likewise pointed out the double-standard of the Roman controversalists in his day, when he wrote: "Indeed all the papists in their books, when they seek to prove any thing, boast everywhere that they can bring arguments against us from the most luminous, plain, clear and manifest testimonies of Scripture . . . For in every dispute their common phrases are,—This is clear,—This is plain,—This is manifest in the scriptures, and such like. Surely when they speak thus, they ignorantly and unawares confess the perspicuity of the scriptures even in the greatest questions and controversies." See A Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton, trans. and ed. William Fitzgerald (Cambridge: The University Press, reprinted 1849), p. 401.

  4. Just about the only "real" objection to the Doctrine of Perspicuity that I can think of (which btw has nothing to do with Catholic objections to the perspicuity of Scripture, so this comment is slightly off-topic)...

    is the Doctrine of Eschatology.

    Premill, Postmill, Amill, pretrib, posttrib, midtrib, dispensational, covenant theology, etc... all seem to point a lack of perspicuity in Scripture.

    Despite this, I still believe in the doctrine of perspicuity!